If You’re Going To Do One Thing To Improve Your Sleep Quality, Make It This

Photo: Stocksy/Jimena Roquero
Almost like clapping off tempo to a song, sleeping at off times for your circadian rhythm (aka 24-hour sleep-wake clock) can be totally jarring to your sleep schedule. Just take the experience of jet lag, for example, which is perhaps the most extreme case of an internal metronome thrown off-kilter. But even just trying to wake up earlier than usual or nap at a time when you aren’t typically sleepy can show you how resistant sleep is to any change in routine. That’s why sleep doctors regularly tout the benefits of a consistent sleep-wake schedule for improving sleep quality—and, in particular, waking up at the same time every morning, even on weekends.

Though bedtime and wake-up time tend to go hand in hand, there’s a neurochemical reason why wake-up time has an even more profound effect on your circadian rhythm, according to clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD, advisor for stress-wearable company Apollo Neuro. “When you wake up in the morning, light hits the eye and activates the melanopsin cell, which sends a signal to the pineal gland, telling it to stop producing melatonin [aka the hormone associated with sleepiness],” he says. That’s what allows you to get up and start your day.

If you’re waking up at the same time every morning, you’ll have a better chance of dozing off easily each night.

But, at the same time, this process also starts a countdown in your brain for about 14 hours, after which it’ll start producing melatonin once again. That is, no matter when you wake up, that melatonin faucet will turn off and stay off for about 14 hours from that point, says Dr. Breus, and then flip back on, flooding you with sleepiness. So, if you’re waking up at the same time every morning, you’ll have a better chance of dozing off easily around the same time each night—and, in turn, clocking sufficient zzz’s before that wake-up time arrives again.

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Why waking up at the same time every morning can improve sleep quality

Because a consistent wake-up time keeps your melatonin pumping on schedule, it helps you steer clear of “social jet lag,” or the sleep-schedule delay that happens when you stay up late (that’s the social part) only to sleep in later the following morning and then struggle to fall asleep that night.

For example, if you’re getting up at 6:30 a.m. each day during the week, your body will start producing melatonin around 8:30 p.m. each night, says Dr. Breus, but if you switch to waking up at 9:00 a.m. on the weekend, that melatonin window will still open again about 14 hours later, around 11 p.m.—which tends to push back your bedtime and make it tougher to wake up the following morning at your usual weekday time. (That’s why Monday mornings tend to feel so groggy after a weekend spent staying up late and sleeping in.)

A regular wake-up time, then, is essentially a route to a consistent bedtime—and having that schedule set makes you more likely to get the recommended seven to eight hours of shut-eye each night. But, generally, it’s easier to start getting on schedule by waking up at the same time every morning than it is to try regulating your bedtime at the outset, says Dr. Breus. “There are a million things that can affect your ability to go to bed at the same time each night, so the failure rate at that task can be overwhelming,” he says. “What I’ve found anecdotally is that once people start waking up at the same time, after about three weeks, they tend to adopt a consistent bedtime as a result.”

How to adopt a consistent wake-up time if you’re sleep-deprived

It can be so tempting to sleep in on the weekends (or whenever you can), if you’re sleep-deprived. And, sure, if you’re really sleep-deprived, that may occasionally be a last-ditch option to pay back some of that sleep debt, but Dr. Breus suggests making that call based on exactly how much sleep you’ll be missing the night before. “If you’ll be getting fewer than five and a half hours of sleep, then you can push back your wake-up time [though not more than an hour or so, ideally] because that’s generally the lower limit,” he says, “and most people can’t drive or function well when they have that little sleep.”

Otherwise, it’s still smarter to push yourself to wake up at your usual time, rather than to sleep in, even if you won’t get the recommended seven to eight hours. If you find it tough to wake up, consider trying a less, well, alarming alarm clock, and lean into a morning routine that includes light exposure, some gentle exercise, and an energizing breakfast. Still feeling tired come afternoon? Take a power nap of about 30 minutes to quickly reset and refresh your brain.

Perhaps most importantly, when night rolls around, don’t pressure yourself to go to bed earlier as a way to make up for lost sleep the night before. “Chances are, you’ll just lie there awake because your circadian rhythm has not been set to tell you to sleep then,” says Dr. Breus. “That can lead to frustration and anxiety,” he says—which can just prolong your troubles with falling asleep, and lead to even more sleep deprivation.

Instead, just go to bed at your usual time that following night, and you’ll be more likely to wake up refreshed at your typical wakeup time the next morning, too. You can rest assured, sleep is self-correcting, and your body will naturally work to recoup any minor losses in sleep quantity with stronger quality sleep over the next few nights.

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